Live-action remake Beauty and the Beast, due out next month (in case you missed that), is on a rant. Belle, played by Emma Watson, has been given a makeover; not only is she a pretty girl who likes books (Disney made this OK in the nineties – thanks Disney) – no, this Belle has a backstory that makes her more than not-really-a-merchant’s-daughter-but-the-offspring-of-a-king-and-a-good-fairy as in Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original 18th century version. This Belle invents stuff. She also has a new dress and lower heels. Look out patriarchy! But is Hermoine’s feminist fairytale all that? It is, after all a fairytale, with a protagonist called Beauty.
Not to hate on fairytales or anything – they weren’t always all about pretty princesses and primo princes. Before Perrault, the Grimms and other re-tellers changed the stories to make the lessons more palatable for their respective audiences, they were intimate tales told by communities in villages, around fires; as explanations and metaphors for life and living. In the oral version of Little Red Riding Hood, for example; a werewolf kills grans-wans, whose blood and flesh are later consumed by L’il Red before she throws her clothes into the fire – all of them – because they are no longer useful to her. Big bad werewolf calls our red-cloaked cannibal a slut and asks her to get into bed with him. Li’l Red, using her wit, escapes the he-wolf; telling him she needs to pee, he allows her out but restrains her with a thread to the ankle, which she ties to a tree and bolts like Usain. It’s a coming of age tale – the wisdom of her elder passed down to L’il Red through the symbolic consumption of the matriarch. The girl removes her clothes, emerging from girlhood into womanhood. A far cry from the Little Red Riding Hood who called the huntsman for help.
The oral version of our favourite cloaked kid does, however, make a comeback in Angela Carter’s A Company of Wolves (1979), where Li’l Red and her werewolf live a symbiotic relationship of subservience and sovereignty – dare we say “gender equality”? A couple of years later, Roald Dahl turned L’il Red into a gun-wielding wolf-killer; a hyperbolic salute to female empowerment. If fairytales are a reflection the society in which they are told, as literary history suggests, what dirt does 2017’s Beauty and the Beast have to dish? No longer impeded by the corset of her 1740 publication, will Beauty be liberated from the shackles of gender stereotype in a tale of transformation? Whilst ‘remake’ might suggest ‘duplicate’, with a real life feminist on board, change must be inevitable…come on! – The possibilities are endless. Except they’re also not. Because “Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal…that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible,” writes American, writer, editor and critic Jessa Crispin, in her new book Why I am Not a Feminist. As banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as…a fairytale princess, perhaps? Sure, Watson has the clout of fame to help smash her point across but, in this case, it comes in the guise of happily ever after, which is as far from the feminist story as it can get. Women haven’t yet won the day, have they?
Feminism has become an aesthetic; in a sort of ‘girl power’ is cool, I-do-what-I-want kinda way. It’s great that we can get jobs, wear pants and have hairy armpits – or none of the above – if we so choose (even with a little judgement on the side). But feminism is not a free for all. It’s more than doing what you want because often, what you want comes at the expense of other women. Feminism is about women’s rights as much as a woman’s right. Crispin writes, “Once we are a part of the system and benefiting from it on the same level that men are, we won’t care, as a group, about whose turn it is to get hurt.” Feminism is much more than doing what you want, wearing what you want and looking how you want. Freedom – yes. Equality – of course. But also community, attitude and progression, all of which are in a state of stagnation. Trump is president after all, right?
Crispin argues that the decline of feminism is apparent in how easy the label is to claim. The fact that popular culture is full of celebrities who identify themselves as feminists has pushed it into the mainstream; marketing it as an ideological puff-piece, transforming feminism into merchandise. Anyone seen BiebSon – the doll version of Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, which looks more like Justin Bieber than Emma Watson. Not even the profiteers can get it right! Talk about lost in translation. A ‘feminist’ princess masquerading as a man – such awful irony; it’s an ode to feminism defunked. If Beauty and the Beast says anything, upon first glance it says this: that lots has changed since Villeneuve wrote her story almost 300 years ago but not enough. Women do have license to invent things these days but are there enough of us doing it?
Feminism is not marketable, cordial or self-centered. It’s about you but it’s also not about you – it’s about everyone and everything. It’s about action as much as perception, ethics and ideals. It’s about the system. And the system is not right. Emma Watson might be depositing Maya Angelou books all over the tube but unless her embodiment of fairytale’s Beauty is something that screams – not whispers; “the world is not right for women”, she runs the risk of the banality. Crispin challenges us to think big; to go where we dream. To fight. As much as Angela Carter used fairytale genre to reflect the gender relationships of the time, she created a feminist utopia; something for which to yearn, strive and act. That’s where we want to be; where we need to be. This is not the time to be iffy.
Photo credit: Red Riding Hood by Friendbeast @ Deviantartcom.
Sources: “THE CASE AGAINST CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM” by Jia Tolentina, The New Yorker and “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin review – it’s time to get radical” by Suzanne Moore, Theguardian.